Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Strange, Droll Harpur and Iles Books

I've been dashing through all of these war books, so I thought I'd better break up the assault and read something else. For unknown reasons, I pulled Bill James' Eton Crop off the stack. This book falls in the middle on the Harpur and Iles series. Colin Harpur is a police detective and Iles is his amoral boss. I've read maybe five or so in this 20+ book series over the last decade. I've liked others better, though this one offers a good sampling of James' offbeat humor, great dialogue, dealing, and double-dealing.

I found an interesting 2004 interview with James (a pseudonym, so I read, for James Tucker). Notable: "They [the books] are not laboriously realistic. Some would say not realistic at all. Luckily, there are people who appreciate that touch of the unlikely, even fantastic." The books are police procedurals, but the action has its own rules and lives in its own bent world. (The English city where the books take place has no name.)

In 2001, I wrote a "Short Take" review for the Oregonian of Pay Days, which follows...

Bill James’ Harpur and Iles series of mystery novels takes place in an unnamed British coastal city that has seen better times. In the most recent installment, “Pay Days,” the criminal underworld and the police force both begin to unravel. A young Chief Inspector, Dick Nivette, is either taking bribes or pretending to take as part of a clandestine investigation that does not have the approval of his superiors. Meanwhile, the body of a petty drug dealer turns up on an abandoned ship. Gangland violence threatens to run amok. Detective Colin Harpur and his boss, Desmond Iles, go about their investigation in a rather seamy fashion. Iles primarily seems intent on preserving the criminal status quo and protecting a young prostitute whom he patronizes. “Pay Days” is filled with intrigues, shifting loyalties and action. However, it is the droll, offbeat dialogue and extraordinary characterizations that make this novel stand out. The Machiavellian Iles -- the Richard III of fictional police officers -- is a remarkable person to watch and hear. Iles despises most people, “many for being undifferent from themselves.” He spends much of the novel protecting and undermining his own superior, Chief Lane, whom he praises in oxymoron: “‘His soul I prize and his future I know will be hallowed and banal.’” Iles teeters on the edge of violence, culminating in a fine performance on the occasion of a fellow officer’s funeral.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Two Vietnam Memoirs

My armchair and I continue to spend a lot of time in war zones, mostly Vietnam. (I also recently read the pretty good Battle of Mogadishu book, Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, but I won't comment on it here.)

Back-to-back, I read two well-respected Vietnam memoirs, Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Last War and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. These two books provide an interesting contrast because the Vietnam experiences of the authors were significantly different.

At loose ends, Wolff volunteers without a lot of ideological commitment. He comes from a broken family background (father in prison) and has an ironic understanding of his position in the military from the get-go. For instance, he is kept in OCS to help put on a theatrical show. Wolff studied Vietnamese for a year, and then primarily served within an ARVN unit. He saw little combat, though had some close calls and certainly lived in some fear. Still, the memoir has a M*A*S*H-like feel to it: the book opens with 2nd Lt. Woolf and his sergeant attempting to procure a TV on Thanksgiving to watch Bonanza. (They eventually steal a TV.)

Caputo, on the other hand, entered the Marines and the war with significant dedication to their causes. He was among the first combat troops in Vietnam in 1965 and saw the war quickly escalate. This memoir's greatest strength is Caputo's examination of himself and others as line soldiers (platoon leader) under ongoing deployment and combat stress. In this regard, the second half of the book reminded me a bit of Karl Marlantes's recent Marine combat novel, Matterhorn. In the course of his time in Vietnam, Caputo came to see the war as terribly misguided, if not criminal. I couldn't help drawing imperfect but telling comparisons to Afghanistan -- civil war, assistance to local troops, fighting in or near villages, ambivalent civilian populations, etc.